THE LUNCH BELL rings, and Shawntia Cunningham bolts for the door, hurrying into the hall. Her fifth-grade classmates at...

THE LUNCH BELL rings, and Shawntia Cunningham bolts for the door, hurrying into the hall. Her fifth-grade classmates at T.T. Minor Elementary head for the playground, but Shawntia rushes to the cafeteria, spelling list in hand. She grabs a seat at an empty table up front and hands the list to Wendy Cunningham, the teaching assistant on lunchroom duty and, as of earlier this year, Shawntia’s adoptive mother. Cunningham reads off a few words, then, called to attend to younger students finishing their pizza, shouts the rest.

Shawntia, head bowed, writes each word in neat, careful cursive. She is a tall girl, with the long legs of a budding teenager and the high voice of a child. Her hair is braided tight in neat lines that swirl around her head. She wears navy-blue pants, part of the school’s uniform, and a white shirt she tugs down because it’s getting a little short. Her coat is light pink, her favorite color.

Her weekly spelling test will be in a few hours, and she wants to practice one more time.

Four years ago, the Shawntia who arrived at T.T. Minor looked burdened, not determined. She slouched down the hall, eyes drilled to the floor where they couldn’t catch anyone’s hello. At lunch, she sat alone. At recess, back against the fence, she watched. Classmates teased her about her often-unkempt hair. She smelled.

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Academically, she lagged far behind the other second-graders, and her frequent absences didn’t help. She flipped pages during reading, pretending she could sound out words, too.

“Instead of growing up,” says Principal Gloria Mitchell, “I saw her growing down.”

MUCH HAS BEEN written about T.T. Minor, a modest brick building where generations of children from Seattle’s Central Area have gone to school. Some alumni have fond memories, but by the late-1990s, T.T. Minor had gained a reputation as a rough place. Seven years ago, millionaire businessman Stuart Sloan adopted it, striking a deal with the Seattle School District in which he would choose and pay for programs worth roughly $1 million a year. His money kept class sizes to 20 and added teaching assistants in primary grades. It bought uniforms, daily snacks, a longer school year, subsidized preschool and more.

It was the biggest grant ever to a single Seattle school, and perhaps to any school in the nation.

The money brought attention, too, and scrutiny to a school that struggles with one of the biggest dilemmas in education: How to raise the historically low achievement of many students who, like Shawntia, arrive at school poor, neglected and already feeling defeated.

EVERY MONDAY, students and staff file into T.T. Minor’s cafeteria for “morning celebration.” It’s a time to honor all kinds of success — everything from victories at state chess tournaments to a long-awaited day of good behavior on Bus No. 727. For Mitchell and her staff, however, it is also an opportunity to scan for sad eyes, bad moods. Bad behavior is not allowed at T.T. Minor, regardless of what a child’s going through, but the staff is on alert for the reasons nonetheless. They pay special attention to posture because it often says what a child does not. Always, the faculty finds something to address.

One week, it’s a tall boy with dirty hair, a surefire target for teasing. He’s quietly taken to a sink for a shampoo, then, between appointments, Mitchell shapes braids while he patiently sits still. Another week, it’s the downcast face of a fifth-grader whose cousin was shot and killed over the weekend a few blocks away. This afternoon, it’s a third-grader who shuffles down the hall, sobbing. Her teacher sent her to Mitchell’s office for talking too much in class and, once there, the rest of her troubles tumble out. She’s tired, she says. She woke up in the middle of the night when her sister’s foot hit something that squeaked and skittered away. She thought it was a mouse. After that, she couldn’t get back to sleep.

After school began last year, T.T. Minor’s Child Study Team talked to teachers and visited classrooms to determine which students needed immediate attention for problems such as attendance, behavior, family issues, physical health. They ended up with 89 names — roughly a third of the school.

SHAWNTIA WASN’T telling anyone at school everything that was going on at home. She didn’t think she fit in. The other students seemed so happy — “they looked so used to hanging out with their friends.”

It wasn’t until after the state put Shawntia in foster care that school staff confirmed what they suspected: She was spending nearly all her time caring for two little brothers. A 9-year-old changing diapers, spooning baby food, fixing herself dinner in the microwave. When she asked her parents to help, “they wouldn’t really listen.”

Too busy? Yes.

Doing what? Drugs.

Saying this, tears well up.

Shortly after Shawntia arrived at T.T. Minor, the staff formed what they call a “tight circle” around her and made sure several people, including school social worker Lynn Winnemore, checked in with her every day. Each morning before school, Winnemore would get with Shawntia, make sure she had breakfast. She’d invite her to play a short game, help with homework. When Shawntia needed a clean shirt, Winnemore found one. She’d walk her to class and spend a few minutes there to see all went smoothly. After school, she’d make sure Shawntia at least had a granola bar to take home. The school helped arrange counseling and after-school tutoring. Winnemore tried to reach Shawntia’s parents, but notes and calls weren’t answered.

At T.T. Minor, staff do the same with dozens of children. They find families housing, jobs, food. They take students to the vision van to get glasses, and give parents vouchers to buy shoes. They make runs to Fred Meyer to be sure there are enough extra uniforms on hand and, for the youngest ones, spare underwear. (The superhero ones Mitchell bought this past spring were such a hit that some preschoolers wet their pants on purpose to get them.)

Teachers and counselors hear many stories as sad as Shawntia’s, or sadder. Students who see fights that put one relative in the hospital, another in jail. Homes where dining-room tables are full of empty liquor bottles. Two brothers, found alone outside a homeless shelter because their caregiver, an acquaintance of their father, didn’t show up. As Mitchell stops to talk one day in the hall, a passing kindergartner practices a gang sign. Mitchell calls his name sharply, brings her face close to his: “You are too young to even be thinking about that.”

The staff share such stories reluctantly, worried about perpetuating negative stereotypes of students and parents. T.T. Minor and its families have had enough of that, they say. Most of the families are poor — 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — but most work hard to make ends meet with low-paying jobs. And for all the tough cases, there are endearing ones, too, about aunts and grandmas and foster parents who lovingly step in when parents fall short, and parents who take good care of children even through their difficulties. It’s important to remember, says Winnemore, that the problems T.T. Minor students face are in every neighborhood. They just surface at school less often.

BEFORE SHAWNTIA STARTED third grade, the state placed her with her uncle and aunt, teaching assistant Cunningham. Suddenly, the girl who had been absent so much came to school every day. Every day, she was clean. Confident enough to stand up straight, she seemed to grow a foot overnight. Shawntia had friends, too, helped by a weekly group Winnemore organized the year before, primarily to break Shawntia’s isolation. (The school had 15 counseling groups going last school year, dealing with grief, divorce, anger management and more.)

Academics, however, remained a struggle. Shawntia was reading at kindergarten level. Her math skills were low, too. She pled fatigue or illness to dodge work that seemed out of reach.

But people hung in there. At home, the family pitched in to help Shawntia learn her times tables and vocabulary. Cunningham made her count her allowance to get it. At school, teacher Megan Kelley made a big deal out of every baby step forward, and supported her through the days when, after talking with her parents, or getting a glimpse of them panhandling on the street, any little thing would upset her. Shawntia qualified for special-education help, which meant working every day with a teacher in a small group or one-on-one.

By the end of third grade, Shawntia was reading at a first-grade level. By the end of fourth, she’d reached grade three.

Kelley remembers the first time she put one of Shawntia’s papers up on the overhead projector. It was an essay on why T.T. Minor students shouldn’t have to wear uniforms, and Kelley didn’t say whose paper it was. But every time students agreed it met one of the criteria for a passing grade, Shawntia let out an excited “oh!” At the end, when Kelley asked if the author wanted to be identified, everyone already knew. Still, Shawntia jumped up. “It’s me! It’s me!”

When her fifth-grade year ended in June, Shawntia’s reading still hovered around mid-fifth-grade level. Despite her extra practice, spelling remained a challenge, as did writing. But her determination was fierce. Whenever teacher Wayne Greer asked a question, her hand would shoot up. When he called on her to read aloud, she’d stand and cradle the book, face serious. She’d start fast, then slow, picking her way over the more difficult words.

“You read as if someone was standing over you with a butcher knife,” Greer gently teased. “Relax.”

” ‘Kay,” she said, and tried again.

T.T. MINOR takes pride in Shawntia’s progress, although staff point out it’s far from the school’s success alone. Without Cunningham and her family, the road would have been much harder. With some students, it’s a challenge just to get them to school every day.

One sunny afternoon last spring, instructional assistant Akim Finch is out on the field with a Wiffle Ball, a bat and four kindergartners. It looks like playtime, but really it’s a creative attempt to boost the attendance of the boy with the impish grin. He loves baseball, and, when Finch sets a date to play, the boy often coaxes his mother to bring him to school. Otherwise, he misses at least one day a week. First, it was Mondays. When baseball was on Mondays, it was Fridays. Finally, Finch just tells him he could come grab the boy any day.

Sometimes, that kind of persistence builds into a strong bond between home and school. That’s what happened with a kindergartner in Loreen Lily’s class. At first, his father was, at best, leery when Lily or Mitchell called to talk about problems with his son’s behavior. He is a single dad, protective of the thin-faced boy who just recently came into his care. But over time, trust grew. The boy’s misbehavior, once a daily issue, is now infrequent.

When it is, Dad comes in to meet with Lily and Mitchell in her office, door closed. Then they call in the boy. Dad directs his son to apologize to his teacher. When the boy starts to speak, Dad interrupts him. “Look her in the eye,” he says. “Yes, sir,” the boy says. His father then prompts him to say it won’t happen again.

“Can we trust you?” Mitchell asks the boy. He nods. “Yes, ma’am.”

Apologies done, Mitchell makes a big deal of how much progress the boy made. She holds her arms out wide to indicate how much. “But you can’t be sliding back,” she warns.

As he leaves, the boy gives her a hug. “I trust you,” she whispers in his ear.

Then she turns to the father. She tells him how impressed she is with his parenting, how he won her heart months ago when he knelt down in the middle of her office to tell his son how much he loved him, and that’s why the boy would be in big trouble if he kept getting calls from school.

Dad demurs. He’s far from perfect, he says, but he never had a father at home, and he’s promised himself he’ll be there for his child.

IT’S FIFTH-GRADE GRADUATION day for the Class of 2005. Many boys arrive in suits and ties, girls in dresses. Shawntia’s dress is floral pink, and she wobbles a little in her white heels. She accepts an award for academic improvement.

Mitchell stands before a gym full of parents, relatives and friends who snap photos and cheer loudly for each child. She takes the opportunity to challenge them to keep their children serious about school. “I’m holding you accountable, because we’ve done our job.”

“Stay in their faces,” she says. T.T. Minor staff put up with a lot that other schools won’t, she warns.

Shawntia, however, is no longer a worry. Mitchell calls her “a full-meal deal.” One child saved, really. A story to savor.

Shawntia has her future mapped out: From Hamilton Middle to Ballard High, where she wants to play in the marching band. Then maybe the University of Washington. She left T.T. Minor not only a good student but a leader, heading the reed section in the school’s energetic and in-demand marching band.

A mention of friends brings a quick smile to Shawntia’s face. She clearly loves having friends. One of them is Tracimichael, who notes that over the past four years, Shawntia has gone from withdrawn to peppy. Shawntia beams.

Her special education teacher, Kerry Trobec, gives her a watch to remind her she’s learned to tell time this year, one of many holes in her education, now filled.

FALL HAS COME, and schools are open once again. Shawntia and her fellow fifth-graders have moved on to middle schools. In every class at T.T. Minor, there are many new faces. There are many new teachers, too, replacing those who left to get married, go back to school, have a baby. High turnover among students and staff is a constant challenge.

Lots of questions remain about T.T. Minor and Sloan’s gift, which will wind down in June. Even this year, Sloan won’t give as much as in the past. There is no free bus for preschool, class sizes aren’t as small, teaching assistants are fewer. Shawntia’s new mom was one of those who had to find a new job.

The test scores, announced last month, bring good news — they jumped up significantly on last spring’s exams. They still aren’t high — fodder for critics who say all that money should have yielded more. But Sloan says he never set out to judge success solely by tests.

Once his support ends, he says he may offer a matching grant to someone willing to continue what he started.

The school can point to real academic progress. When Mitchell arrived as principal four years ago, about half the fifth-graders read at pre-primer level. In 2005, the lowest was about third grade. Three years ago, no T.T. Minor student had test scores high enough to be considered for Rainier Scholars, a private program for minority students with academic potential. This past year, 14 T.T. Minor students made the first cut, and three were selected to participate.

Mitchell doesn’t like the school’s scores. But she also doesn’t think T.T. Minor will ever have tremendously high ones.

It’s a surprise to hear her say that. She’s usually among the first to see strengths in the most difficult child. Don’t get her wrong: She believes — knows — the children at T.T. Minor can succeed. Just not on the state’s testing schedule. Too many children arrive with too many issues, she says. And too many parents, she confides, leave as soon as their children get on track.

So T.T. Minor is left to serve a constant stream of kids who need a fresh start, or lots of support, or a steely determination to turn can’t into can, and won’t into will. Kids like the preschooler who hit two students one morning last spring, then flopped on the floor in the hall, wailing. “Wrong place. Wrong place,” Mitchell told him.

They had a deal: No fits except in her office. When he refused to go, she picked him up and calmly carried him there. His parents, clashing over which one should fetch him, never showed. As the boy carried on for more than an hour, Mitchell said it’s hard to truly understand what the term “readiness to learn” means without spending some time at a school like hers.

It’s more than a hot breakfast, uniforms, a safe place to go after school — though all those help. The first battle is to build hope — something not so easy to see in a stack of test scores.

Linda Shaw is a Seattle Times staff writer. Tom Reese is a Times staff photographer.